Five Common Errors That Cost Sales and Harm Business

First Law on Holes: When you’re in one, stop digging!

Denis Healy

There’s no shortage of advice regarding new things we can do to improve our sales, but sometimes our problems are coming from things we need to STOP doing. Despite the current focus on positive thinking and affirmations, one problem that holds sales reps back is self-centeredness. When that’s the case, the quickest route to improvement is to face that fact, correct the habits associated with it, and move on.

Salespeople are ever in search of new ways to improve their performances, and the biggest things going these days revolve around the use of social media and various other “emarketing” tools.

These certainly have their place, but success in sales will always also require good interpersonal skills and a desire to be of service to others. Experts on the effects of technology on society are warning however, that both of these appear to be deteriorating in the digital age. That’s troubling.   

Psychologists who study patterns of social interaction tell us that callousness and rudeness are becoming increasingly common in our society, and that narcissistic tendencies and other symptoms of egocentrism are more prevalent than ever. A number of factors are contributing to these trends.

Technology: A double-edged sword

These days we spend more and more time interacting with one another through digital technology, and therefore the frequency of face-to-face contact has declined. While we may communicate with one another more often, we do so indirectly and without the humanizing influences of body language, facial expressions, and voice inflections.

Many observers feel that as our communications become more indirect and impersonal, we can expect people to become more insensitive. The fact that rudeness and even cruelty (e.g., “cyberbullying” among children) are on the increase in our society, shows that we are indeed becoming a more self centered and less empathetic lot.

Self-centeredness is bad for business

Communication and understanding are essential to success in any business, and the escalating rates of insensitivity and rudeness do not improve businesses. Several decades ago there was a book called Winning through Intimidation that made a brief splash. The ripples however, quickly dissipated and little has been heard of it since. Antisocial behavior is not highly esteemed among legitimate businesspeople.

Performance in the domain of sales is particularly dependent upon skills associated with interpersonal sensitivity and the ability to see things from the viewpoint of others. Since all businesses ultimately depend upon sales to sustain themselves, the proliferation of self-centeredness and narcissism in our society is not good news for businesses in need of effective sales reps.

Ineffective sales people abound

Jim Muehlhausen, author of The 51 Fatal Business Errors and How to Avoid Them cites the retaining of self-centered salespeople as a major cause of failure. But with 50 other errors to discuss, Muelhausen only glossed over the sales problem, limiting his discussion to salespeople whose activity levels are disappointingly low. In other words, he was concerned primarily about the problem of laziness.

While I agree with him in one sense, it’s also true that there are many energetic and active salespeople who fail to close deals because they’re socially insensitive. Sometimes the problem is not motivation, but competency. Locked into their own perspectives, many sales reps engage in self-defeating behaviors that seem fine to them, but that actually turn prospective buyers off.

Bad habits that ruin sales

While it’s normal to think in terms of what things salespeople might start doing that would improve their performances, but the really great ones don’t think in normal terms. Being their own biggest critics, they also examine the flip side of the coin, often asking themselves what things they need to stop doing. 

Every one of us has been approached by salespeople whose annoying interpersonal styles prevented us from buying from them. We may have actually wanted what it was they were selling— we just opted not to purchase it from them. Let’s turn to some of the things that such people do that defeat their own purposes.

Below is a short list of errors that bad sales reps need to eliminate from their behavioral repertoires if they intend to improve. Highly successful reps avoid these like the plague. All of them are reflective of self-centeredness to various degrees, and that’s what makes them so offensive.

Error #1: Trying to rush things

Sales reps, who are poorly trained or inexperienced, make this mistake all the time. Rather than letting prospective buyers consider their options at their own pace, reps of this ilk attempt to hustle them into decisions that they’re not yet prepared to make, thinking that they can “tip the scales.”  They often do — in the wrong direction.

This more often than not generates what’s known in the business as “pushback,” or resistance to buying that may have little or nothing to do with the product or service in question. What it really represents is the potential buyer asserting his or her independence and right to choose. Generating pushback kills a lot of sales that might otherwise be closed if the rep were more patient and respectful of prospects’ ability to think things through for themselves. Advice: Lighten up! 

Error #2: “Talking down” to prospects

Nothing galls people more than having their intelligence insulted, no matter how subtly.  And yet this happens all the time. Suggesting that a prospect is stupid if he or she doesn’t make a given purchase is foolish, regardless of any thinly veiled attempt to appear helpful. Advice: Never entertain the idea that a potential customer will buy from you in order to convince you that they’re intelligent — few of them will spend money just to buy your esteem.

Error #3: Doing all the talking

The most successful salespeople are better listeners than they are talkers. What the really good ones do is ask questions that invite prospects to express themselves and their interests. People love to talk about themselves and their preferences, and it’s good sales practice to allow them to do that.

The late Steve Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, insisted that we do better in our relations with others when we “seek first to understand, and then be understood.” Trying to outtalk the other person in a sales situation is bad for business. Advice: Read the “7 Habits” and give special attention to Habit #5. If you’ve already read it, give it a review.

Error #4: Overuse of industry jargon

Novices in the financial services business do this all the time. They sound like television commercials, prompting listeners to look for a remote so that they can turn them off.  Seasoned veterans speak in plain English, avoiding the use of polysyllabic terms (big words) unless it’s absolutely necessary to use them.

What you want to do is put the prospect at ease — if you’re truly knowledgeable, that will come out as a matter of course. The conspicuous use of industry jargon usually comes across as stiff, formal, and phony. A little “folksiness” can go a long way when establishing rapport with prospective clients. Advice: Study the sayings of Will Rogers — if you don’t know who Will Rogers was, “Google” him!

Error #5: Arguing with prospects

This one requires little explanation. Once a sales rep’s interchange with a prospective customer degenerates into an argumentative back and forth, it’s over. Telemarketers, failing lot that they are, typically resort to such tactics out of desperation.  Telemarketing aside, this doesn’t work in any domain.

Advice: At the first sign of irritation in a prospect, thank them for your time, wish them a good day, and ask if might speak with them another time. Also, if you’ve got an argumentative streak in you, outgrow it, and fast — all it will net you is a bad reputation.

Honest self-assessment: The key to success

One way to improve your performance in the domain of sales is to document your activities in writing on a daily basis and tie these directly to the results you’ve achieved. Note what you did well, what you did poorly, what you can do better, and how. Review to the relationship of all of the above to specific goals that you have for who you want to be and how you want to live, and do that in writing as well.

Above all, be honest with yourself, both about your strengths and about the areas in which you would benefit from improvement. Positive thinking is useful, but it can easily be confused with false confidence and even denial. Neither of these latter two will make you better at what you do.

Star athletes achieve excellence by reviewing their performances, sticking with what they’re doing right, admitting what they’re doing wrong, and eliminating the destructive patterns of error that hold them back. They also visualize applying all of the above systematically in their next outing. 

Their confidence then emerges naturally from knowing that they’ve done everything possible to give themselves their best chances at success. It works for them — can you think of any other areas of professional activity in which such an approach might be useful?